“I believe it is peace for our time.”
30 September, 1938. British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in the now infamous Munich Agreement, cedes the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler. The hope, though in vain, was quite clear; appease the Germans to avoid a war.
The Munich Agreement was celebrated across Europe.
Not one year later, Europe was, for the second time since the turn of the century, the site of brutal internecine barbarism.
The year is 2020, and we are barreling towards another Munich.
In the wake of Chinese expansionism, we’re faced with the same choice destiny gave Prime Minister Chamberlain; appease or fight, cower or rise. The consequences of his choice are writ large, in the blood of innocents, across history’s pages for all to see.
There are three perspectives on China, prevalent in the modern world. Firstly, a pacifist perspective, trenchantly detached from reality, exuding naiveté beyond comprehension. If history has taught us any one thing, it is that tyrannical autocracies do not much care to follow negotiated peace treaties.
The second perspective, much more worth our time, seeks to cast China’s threat to the liberal democratic order, in terms of the Soviet conflict; a Cold War.
Trade restrictions, espionage, self-dependency, and mutually assured destruction are the law in this game. ‘Aatmanirbhar’, as Prime Minster Modi puts it. He’s exactly right to do so; we must stop relying on the Chinese economy if we are to have any hope of emerging as a world leader.
This argument, while essentially correct, falters on two counts. It misunderstands how the Cold War was won, and acts as a misnomer for what lies ahead.
Ronald Reagan and the United States were instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the Soviet Union (at a time when India, along with a multiplicity of other nations was dodging the same responsibility, I might add). But the view that they alone won the Cold War is incorrect.
They share that honor, with Mikhail Gorbachev. ‘Glasnost and Perestroika’ (freedom and openness) and Gorbachev’s (albeit somewhat reluctant) commitment to both is what ended the Soviet Union. While his predecessors sought to violently repress the freedoms of their countrymen, Gorbachev allowed for western culture, and the concomitant liberalism, to be introduced into the U.S.S.R.
Though disagreeing with the reforms taking place all across the Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union, Secretary Gorbachev sought not to repress them. When Germany voted for unification, he allowed it to happen. Though very late, and perhaps unhappily, he heeded President Reagan’s call. He ‘tore down that wall’.
Confronted with mounting public pressure for free elections, he relented, and allowed candidates not officially endorsed by the Communist Party to stand.
It is true that the economic collapse and near total bankruptcy of the Soviet Union were key factors in Gorbachev’s decisions, nudging him away from totalitarianism, and towards better things. However, we must realize that his restraint against the violent suppression of revolution, and his rational approach to a failing economy, are rarities in the annals of autocratic rule.
Dictatorships nearly always end in violent revolution. Gorbachev’s didn’t. He could have traced the footsteps of despots past, foregoing any notions of liberalism and freedom. The world may have seen another Russian Revolution, had he not taken the measures he did.
Regardless though, China, our primary subject of discussion, is highly unlikely to suffer that same weakness. They’ve engineered an extremely productive and efficient economy, while still following a largely communist model. By depriving their citizens of basic human rights and freedoms, they’ve managed to cheat economics.
Unlike the Soviets, they will not fall to rancor over economic tensions.
I say all of this, to make clear that the Cold War ended the way it did, not because of smartly crafted policies, but because of pure happenstance. The world was lucky in that Gorbachev had more respect for freedom and liberalism than his predecessors.
It would be unwise to bank our China policy on the improbable hope that Xi Jinping is replaced by a similar figure.
Secondly, for India, allusions to a ‘Cold War’ with China miss the point; for the countries bordering the U.S.S.R, the war was most decidedly not ‘Cold’.
Mentioning ‘The Cold War’, at its worst, conjures up images of global panic, brought on by the threat of military conflict between two superpowers. What we tend to ignore, is that there was, in fact, military conflict; it just wasn’t on American shores. There was conflict in Africa, in the Middle East, in South East Asia. There was conflict on the borders of the Soviet Union.
If a war with China begins, it won’t be ‘Cold’; at least not for us.
The third, and in my opinion, only realist perspective, is a gearing up for militarism. As liberal, peace-loving democracies, we must not start a war. The faint glimmer of peaceful resolution should limit us. I would not endorse the policy of a first strike. But when attacked, we must respond in kind.
When China escalates, we must escalate.
When China attempts territorial grabs in the South China Sea, we must stand with our ASEAN allies.
When China colonizes Hong Kong, we, along with the entire liberal democratic order, must take a hard stand against them.
We cannot afford to continue with the doctrine of vague denouncements and obligatory shows of strength. India cannot take China’s abuse lying down.
If the choice is to appease or to fight, she must fight. If the choice is to cower or to rise, she must rise.
India will get through this, but only if she makes the right choice.